26 January 2013
Back in Thailand and on the train from Ayutthaya to Sukothai. It is kind of a relief to be back in Thailand, with no travel restrictions and fabulous food. And Thailand is so cheap too!! The train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya cost THB15 each - that's 30 pence. OK, it did take 3 hours, when it was supposed to take half of that, but who is in a hurry?
This is our first visit to Northern Thailand. We've been coming to Thailand for years but always end up going south and to the islands. And what a pleasant surprise this has been.
Our first stop, Ayutthaya or Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it's probably the most relaxed WHS we have ever visited. Most of the site lies in a neat 5x5km square just west of the new town. Ayutthaya was the royal capital of Siam from 1350, and in 1700-ish it was one of the largest cities in the world. Then it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767. Some of the remaining ruins are truly spectacular.
We stayed at the lovely Tamarind Thai Guesthouse which is across the road from Wat Mahathat, one of the main temple complexes; so easy access to the main site on foot. Another good reason to stay here, if you really need one, is the Old Town Coffee Shop next door to Tamarind. They do the best real coffee, from espresso to lattes, which is something we have been craving desperately for weeks now; and their frosty juice - blended pineapple and strawberry - is wicked.
We arrived in Ayutthaya late in the afternoon, so decided to take a walk around Wat Mahathat while there was still enough light for pictures. This is where you can see a Buddha head entwined in the roots of a Banyan tree and several beheaded Buddha figures. It is also home to a number of lovely lotus shaped prangs in varying stages of disrepair . Visible from here and making a very impressive backdrop is the restored prang at Wat Ratchaburana next door (where a largish treasure find lead to some serious corruption and wheeling and dealing to leave the temple void of most of its riches very soon after they were rediscovered. The little that remains is in a museum now). We were expecting crowds, bus loads of tourists on day trips from Bangkok; but... We had the whole place to ourselves!!
We watched the sun set over the lotus pond next to Wat Mahathat complex and then walked to the night market for dinner. Pad Thai, mango & sticky rice, sate, fresh papaya, squeezed honey orange juice. On the way home we noticed that Wat Mahathat was lit up and the ticket office still open, so we walked by to see if we could get in. The guard waved us in. It was full moon, and once again we had it all to ourselves. The magical atmosphere of the moonlit experience left us elated. Something we will always remember.
Next morning we were up early for a run. (Impressive eh!?) We ran through the island site which gave us an idea of which complexes we wanted to come back to, to see up close and in paid for detail. Each complex is run and charged for independently. Then after a breakfast of Tom Ka (coconut soup with tofu) at Old City Coffee Shop we headed off to explore. Our favourite complexes are Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and of course Wat Mahathat.
In the evening we took a longboat boat ride on the river. Probably not something we would usually do or would do again, as we generally try to avoid groups, but it came recommended by the guesthouse so we decided to give it a try. The boat stopped at several Wats on the way, but by far the most impressive, and probably the most beautiful of all the complexes in Ayutthaya, is the Wat Chaiwatthanaram complex, next to the canal. We reached it at sunset. Awesome!!
Back to the night market again for dinner. This time papaya salad, seafood omelet and the obligatory mango and sticky rice. You can't go wrong in a Thai night market where food is concerned. And the sunglasses are usually a good buy too. A pair with cream frames and Burberry plaid printed arms for £1 slip into my collection...
Next morning on the way to the station we asked our tuk tuk driver to stop by the massive reclining Buddha at Wat Lokayasutharam. To me this is the best Buddha image we have seen on this or any of our other trips in Asia. He is massive and is lying in an open field, smiling into the landscape instead of enclosed by walls. He just looks so happily relaxed and contented. A truly Thai Buddha!!
The train from Ayutthaya to Sukothai winds through pleasant scenes of rice paddies and rocky outcrops, but if you end up in Third class it can be a long and hot experience if you don't get a good seat. Five hours of bum numbing, foot swelling rocking and we finally arrive to a fanfare of taxis and tuk tuks vying for our attention. The train doesn't actually travel to Sukothai, but stops in Phitsanulok instead and you need to get a transfer from there. Also, old Sukothai, where we are staying and where the old city site is, is a further 12km from new Sukothai, so the tuk tuk ride of about 50km does nothing to relieve the bottom cramps.
We finally arrive at Orchid Hibiscus Garden guest house and it is like arriving in an oasis. A cool blue pool and immaculately manicurned gardens greet us and the Italian inn keeper gives us a quick introduction to Sukothai, which means dawn of happiness and was founded in 1238. Our host has lived here for 16 years and loves the place and is a great source of information. It is just before sunset, so we hire bicycles from the bike rental shop across the road and head off to find a secluded spot to enjoy the orange skyline rimmed by gentle hills and temple silhouettes.
Sukothai old city is another UNESCO world heritage site made up of several large areas. The main area is accessed via the ticket office in Sukothai old town and is surrounded by the old city walls, but there are plenty of ruins around this area which are completely free to visit and are usually also completely deserted. When you pass through the walls always remember to hoot if you are in a motorized vehicle as this seems to please the gods no end. If you're on a bicycle the gods are ok with you so no need to do anything.
Once again we are struck by how quiet and relaxed the whole place is. We do not need to jostle with crowds and can move around freely wherever we want to. These Thai WH sites are great. The best way to get around is by bike and there are plenty of shady spots to picnic and relax when you get tired of ruins.
Sukothai is where Thai history really begins. It is the first seat of the kings of Siam and it is where the language and culture originated. The main site in old Sukothai is large and very photogenic, but the site in Si Satchanalai is also well worth a visit. It is 50km to the north east and makes for a wonderfully uncomfortable but very scenic ride on a small motorbike (read moped). The Elephant Wat Chang Lom is very impressive as is the riverside Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat. We spend three nights here and it is the perfect amount of time.
Our next destination is Chiang Mai. Instead of another soleus gluteus battering on the train, we decide on the faster bus option this time. It is slightly more expensive than taking the train and sets us back £6 each for the 350 km journey. (that would just get me to work and back through central London!) The route is pretty nondescript until you get to the hills near Lampang. Then the spectacular climb into Chiangmai begins. The road is lined with elephant parks and ceramic factory outlets and forests.
Chiangmai is considered the cultural capital of Thailand, but it is also fast becoming the med-tourism capital of Asia. We have come for dentistry. As everyone knows, dentistry in the UK sucks and will bankrupt you if you need to resort to it. Here however, it is affordable, of an excellent standard and the service is very Thai. You can have your checkup, clean and X-rays in the morning; then go for a body scrub and massage at one of the many spas before having an amazing lunch; then get your braces fitted in the afternoon, after which you can have another massage to calm your newly metal wrapped tooth nerves, before going shopping at the massive night market until you drop. Then pick up a fresh mango smoothie and head off to your lovely teak house hotel and with ac and pool and chill. Next day, if you like, you can do it all again but swop the dentistry for a bit of Botox and fillers. It's all here and won't break the bank.
But, if you're not into the med tourism thing then there is a whole world of adventure which awaits you just outside the city limits. We hired a motorbike and went exploring by ourselves. As mentioned before, we don't do the organised tour thing very well. I'm not into team building experiences. But, if you want them, you can have them and there are hundreds of tour operators all around town selling everything from Elephant camps to shooting to abseiling.
The road to the north runs up into the misty hills of Mae Rim where you'll find the beautiful Lanna-styled Four Seasons hotel built around its own ornamental rice paddy. There are loads of shady and atmospheric restaurants and coffee shops as well as strawberry farm stalls between here and the spectacularly situated Queen Sirikit botanic gardens at the top of the hill along the river. It is a cool and pleasant way to spend a day winding slowly up the hill on a bike just taking in the greenery. And the trees!!!
Another way to escape the heat is to head west up to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep which is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in Thailand. Catch glimpses of Chiangmai from above, from along the road, which is fringed by nature reserves, dense forest and frivolous waterfalls. The temperature can drop by about 5 degrees so it gets quite chilly on a bike, but wow!! The scenery is spectacular especially as the road starts to narrow to one lane and curls around the back of the mountain!!
The Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep which is the first attraction you reach on the way up, is a large shopping mall with a narrow pathway of 309 steps running through it to the temple gates. You can buy anything from Chinese silk pyjamas to Buddhist temple bells and sweet chilli coated corn on the way up. There are hill tribe villages in the area who sell their traditionally dressed children for photographs, and there is even a jade museum if all this does not impress you enough. The number of tourists is phenomenal and finding parking can be challenging, but it is all run in the very relaxed Thai style and the view from the monastery is worth the capitalist climb up. Just don't lose your shoes in the pile outside the temple door!!
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